f If it is 1987 and you are broke, half-crazy, depressed, overwhelmed and insecure, proceed to Bloomingdales with your punk-rock bisexual girlfriend, the one you met at contact improv class the month before and have sort of fallen for more than she has for you. Go to Bloomingdales to escape the rain. Revel in the fact that there is rain in November somewhere even though your girlfriend comes from Portland Oregon where there’s always rain. Dodge perfume samples. Make out in the dressing room until asked to leave.
Later, second-act the original Broadway production of Burn This, starring John Malkovich. Revel in his brilliant acting and his terrible wig, the same way you revel in the rain: This Happens Somewhere. Everyone in your acting class worships Malkovich; all the boys know his True West moves by heart. You’re more the Alan Alda type, but no one worships him, so second act Burn This with your sort-of girlfriend, who’s still writing letters regularly to Catherine back in Portland.
You hope it’s as she says, that she’s writing mostly because Cathy sends drugs, sends them via the US Postal Service and they are somehow never detected. This is before Homeland Security, when New York is in its last throes of graffiti trains, when Times Square is still the kind of place where you can get mugged by a guy with a razor blade hidden between his upper gum and upper lip, on your way to the African dance class you take every Sunday at Alvin Ailey.
And please, let’s not even try to imagine Alan Alda doing African Dance, shaking from having just been robbed, trying to keep on the beat that Katherine Dunham bangs on the floor with a knotted wooden stick. Let’s just agree that we are relieved that video cameras weren’t as prevalent then, especially after you misread the schedule at Alvin Ailey and go into the Intermediate class rather than Beginning.
Anyway, you hope your sort-of girlfriend is just writing Cathy for the crystal meth, the excellent marijuana and hallucinogens that arrive bi-weekly from Oregon, and that you are only too willing to sample, and that your whole acting class who have become something of a Malkovich-worshipping contact-improvising tribe ingests nightly before riding the subways out to Rockaway to watch the sun rise, or up to Columbia because there is a Grotowski lecture or Free Jazz or Beat Poetry performance in the basement of a church somewhere. On your way you learn survival skills: don’t answer any questions, don’t look people in the eyes for too long, always have something to read. And as the Uptown Express lurches and weaves you hang on, stoned, screaming, gleeful at three in the morning, aware suddenly that six months ago you were in Alaska, where all you had to worry about was getting the map right side up, or if someone above you was pissing downwind.
Because if it is 1987, winter in the city of Koch-vs.-graffiti, muggers vs. Disney, Bloomindales’ perfume samples vs. sort-of girlfriend, is a time of nostalgia. You go to these lectures and concerts because you long for it to be 1967, say, but it’s not yet 1997, so you aren’t yet aware that this longing you have is a sort of trope. You are a naïve post-modernist from a smaller city in the upper Midwest, a city that will later discover itself as cultured, but until now it has just been a place in which to grow up desperately. A place where such things as Punk Polka exist, and are performed unironically at bowling alleys not “Bowling Alleys.” Is this a better way of life? More “Authentic?” No. In 1987 it is just stifling.
You wish you could be in New York in wintertime during the era of the Living Theater, say, or Andy Warhol, or Patti Smith, who your sort-of girlfriend reminds you of especially when you smoke that Thai Stick Cathy sends back. For sure, you think, it was better then. You think this until exactly nine months later, when you return from summer vacation, and see the Living Theater perform their Triumphant Return show after years “In Exile” in “Europe”, where “People” are more “Receptive” to “Revolution.”
The excitement in the space is palpable as the lights go down, but unfortunately when they come up again and the actors begin to speak and move, you and your classmates, including your ex-sort-of-girlfriend and her boyfriend, the most Malkovich-loving actor in the class, collectively you realize very quickly that this is quite possibly the worst piece of theater ever made. A middle-aged woman bleats out slogans about the revolution while pulling the stuffing from a large doll dressed as a Nazi she bleats out slogans about the proletariat and later you see her leaving the theater in a fur coat. And you thank God that it is 1988 and there is nothing to long for wistfully any more, at least for a couple of months until winter rolls around again and you can wish you were younger or older or dead. You can’t decide if you should go home or not this winter, or maybe stay here, or where you would call home anyway if you did.